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Serving the poor

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Recently, in Colorado Springs, I ate lunch at Seeds, a “community restaurant” devoted to making meals affordable to all. Guests are invited to pay what they can and, if that is nothing, to volunteer for an hour. A few days later, I saw another similar enterprise, Café 180, located on Denver’s outdoor 16th Street Mall.

It might seem like a new phenomenon but it’s more of an old idea with a new twist. Sellers of cooked food ranging from vendors with a cart all the way up to deluxe restaurants have long given away food to the needy.

In 1820 a French restaurateur in the City of Washington (D.C.) informed the public that he would sell the beef left over after being boiled for his special bouillon, while “to persons unable to pay it will be given gratis.”

John W. Farmer, a wealthy plumber, opened a Free Dining Saloon in New York City during the financial panic of 1857. After the first six months he announced he had served nearly 231,000 meals composed of dishes such as soup, corned beef, pork, ham, fish, bread, potatoes, cabbage, and turnips. Though hailed by the poor, especially the Irish, the New York Tribune rebuked him for failing to distinguish the deserving poor from the drunks, reprobates, and other “vile” persons “who prefer the bread of idleness to that of industry.” He carried on for several years, then opened the Farmer Institute, a reading room and lecture hall where speakers promoted an economy based on cooperation. A Cooperative Building Association that was formed as a result was quite successful.

Many free and low-price dining rooms as well as restaurant breadlines have sprung up during panics and depressions (of which there have also been many). Some have been motivated by religion or a social cause. In the 1870s a bad economy combined with the temperance movement helped make Holly Tree Coffee Inns successful. They were designed by Christian groups as alternatives to saloons, pitting “Queen Mocha against King Alcohol.” In addition to serving coffee, the self-supporting coffee houses provided low-priced food for working-class men in Hartford, Chicago, New York City, Washington, Boston, and many smaller New England towns. Quaker Joshua L. Bailey created similar coffee houses in Philadelphia.

The severe depression of the 1870s inspired others to open cheap restaurants. Some had meals for 10 cents, some for 5 cents, and some sold dishes for as low as 1 cent apiece. In New York a restaurant proprietor described only as an “old lady” was popular with newsboys for bargains like “Plate of soup one cent” and “All kinds of meat one cent.” Despite her rock-bottom prices she claimed to make a good profit.

CharityFleischman'sbreadline1913

Louis Fleischmann earned a fine reputation for the breadline he started at his New York Vienna Bakery restaurant during the Depression of the 1890s. He kept it going until his death in 1904, whereupon his son continued it for several years [shown above]. Another New Yorker, the Bowery’s Mike Lyon was also well known for his beneficence. Every morning at 5:00 a.m. he handed out food left from the night before to hundreds of women and children who gathered at his back door.

Physical fitness advocate Bernarr Macfadden also fed New York’s poor, thereby introducing what he claimed was the city’s first vegetarian restaurant in 1902. He recreated a similar penny cafeteria in 1931, selling soup, codfish, beans, prunes, bread, and other dishes for 1 cent each. He charged more for coffee because he didn’t think it was a “vital” food. Similar restaurants could be found then in Detroit and Springfield MA and probably many other cities. Max Rosoff invited the poor to eat for free in his NY Times Square restaurant after 10 pm., while Harry Rapoport, operator of a Jewish dairy restaurant on the Lower East Side was called the “Mayor of Second Avenue” in recognition of his culinary charity, especially after feeding 300 capmakers during a 7-week strike during the 1930s Depression.

charityclifton's30centmealEqually impressive were the efforts of Clifford Clinton who not only ran a penny restaurant for about six months during the Depression but also made low-priced or nearly free meals a standard in his Los Angeles Clifton’s cafeterias. [30-cent meal shown, 1940s] Patrons were instructed they could pay what they wanted. He was patronized largely by the elderly who appreciated getting “A Tra-ful for a Tri-ful” at his odd but cheerfully upbeat cafeterias. Hot cereals ran about 8 cents while an egg was 9 cents. In 1954 he served a whopping 20,000 meals each day in his two cafeterias. During World War II he created a “Meals for Millions” foundation that funded scientists to develop an inexpensive soy-based meal distributed by wartime relief agencies to refugees throughout the world.

BTW, the lunch at Seeds was good as was the service. It’s a popular spot.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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Bumbling through the cafeteria line

In 1931 the American humor magazine Life (not to be confused with the later photojournalism magazine of the same name) published “The Cafeteria,” an essay that described an inexperienced patron’s befuddlement in composing a meal item by item while being propelled forward by an ever-moving line. (The illustration by W. E. Hill is also from 1931.)

The essay, from which I have selected sentences to shape into a “poem” similar to Charles Green Shaw’s The Bohemian Dinner, was written by John C. Emery. It’s likely that at the time he wrote about his cafeteria experience he was a 27-year old editor with Railway Age, a trade journal located in Chicago. Chicago, it happens, was a city with plenty of cafeterias. In its early stages cafeterias were identified with women while men were notoriously resistant to them.

Turns out Mr. Emery had an interesting biography. As a naval commander during World War II, he was in charge of expediting air cargo. Following the war he founded Emery Air Freight, which began as a freight forwarder that leased space on existing airlines and grew into a major corporation. Alas, I know nothing about his further adventures in eating out, but I doubt he continued to go to cafeterias.

The Cafeteria
The trays.
The cutlery.
The selection of a knife, a fork and two spoons.
The selection of two pieces of bread and a roll.
The after-thought selection of another roll.
The sudden realization that you have a lot of bread.
The hesitancy to put any of it back, under the eagle eye of a waitress.
The great variety of salads.
The quick selection of one kind.
The immediate regret that you did not take another kind instead.
The inclination to make a change.
The nudge of a tray in the hands of a woman in line behind you.
The decision to move along.
The bowl of soup.
The meat order.
The potatoes.
The string beans.
The beets.
The realization that your tray is getting pretty full …
The decision to forego dessert.
The tempting pies.
The urgent desire for a piece of pie.
The selection of a piece of pie.
The difficulty of finding space for it on your tray.
The check, amounting to $1.32.*
The vast surprise.
The realization for the first time that you have enough food for about three hungry men.
The search for a table.
The unloading of your tray.
The vast array of dishes.
The growing conviction that other patrons are laughing at you.
The discovery that you forgot to take a napkin.
The consumption of every bit of food before you.
The gorged feeling.
The sluggish return to the office.
The surreptitious nap.

© Jan Whitaker, 2012

* Equal to about $18.90 in 2010 dollars, probably about double what he usually paid for lunch.

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Co-operative restaurant-ing

Although it is a footnote to restaurant history, the notion that restaurants could provide a solution to social and domestic problems is one that has cropped up quite a few times in American history, beginning in the 1840s, continuing into the 1970s, and not totally extinct even today.

The idea of community dining began with Frenchman Charles Fourier’s plan for a society organized into communes (phalanxes) where people both lived and worked. Several were established in the United States in the 1840s and 1850s, in Ohio, Texas, Wisconsin, New York, and New Jersey. The North American Phalanx in Red Bank NJ, which continued for 12 years, may have been the longest lasting. Its phalanstery, a kind of hotel or apartment building, had 85 rooms and a “refectory” where members gathered at long tables and chose their meals from a bill of fare with prices.

The Fourier-inspired communes did not survive, but the idea of collective dining did. From the 1870s until World War I feminists saw commercial restaurants as the next, virtually inevitable, step in evolutionary progress that would liberate women from kitchens. Suffragist Tennessee Claflin observed in 1871 that women’s chores such as teaching children and making clothes were leaving the home and becoming special trades. Noting that men were becoming accustomed to eating their midday meal in restaurants, she expected food preparation to be next.

Others observed the same thing, especially with the growing popularity of kitchenless apartments. An 1876 article in The American Socialist viewed NYC apartment buildings where meals were served in ground floor dining rooms as an outgrowth of Fourier’s ideals. Although limited to fairly affluent families then, apartment living was regarded as a step toward universal cooperative housekeeping.

A goal of some futurists and feminists, such as Edward Bellamy and Helen Starrett, was to have complete meals delivered to the home ready to eat. Starrett wrote in 1889 that the solution need not be a non-profit enterprise. Rather, just as butter and soap making had been commercialized, she expected that the business world would find a way to do this profitably. Indeed, in Knoxville, Tennessee, a woman started a meal delivery service as early as 1896, sending out “steaming hot” food to families. The idea got a boost during World War I when a surging war economy drew hired cooks out of affluent households (e.g., Florence Hulling).

Author and social thinker Charlotte Perkins Gilman knew of three cooked food companies in operation, in New Haven, Pittsburgh, and Boston. She fully expected efficient restaurants and food services to replace the home as a site of production, which, she wrote in 1903, “lingers on inert and blind, like a clam in a horse-race.” In her 1909 novel What Diantha Did, the enterprising heroine not only runs a hotel for working women, she also operates a lunchroom for business men, a cooked food delivery service, and a mini-maid service.

Other than supporting utopian societies and liberating women from household chores, the goals of “public service” style restaurants in the 19th and 20th centuries also variously encompassed providing inexpensive lunches for young working women, luring alcoholics away from saloons, resolving labor strife, reducing the cost of living, and promoting healthy diets.

Social motives often lay behind the start of commercial restaurants also, such as the Dennett’s chain whose funding came in part from missionary societies. And some eating places that had their starts as community co-operatives developed into commercial ventures, such as the Hollister Cooperative Coffee Club or the Mission Cafeteria in Long Beach [shown], both in California.

A curious outgrowth of the interest in communal dining occurred in Cleveland OH, where Richard Finley established Finley’s Phalansterie shortly after the turn of the century [pictured above]. Eventually he presided over six eating places in Cleveland and grew rich. Although he chose the generally unfamiliar name to pique interest in his restaurant, it turned out that he did in fact have communitarian motives in mind. His plan, reminiscent of Elbert Hubbard’s Roycroft in East Aurora NY, was to establish a colony in California where workers would live and produce arts and crafts furniture and objects. I was unable to discover how far he succeeded beyond building a hotel and cottages in La Canyada and publishing a magazine called Everyman.

The story of restaurants and eating places with social motives is not complete without mentioning the hippie and communal restaurants of the 1960s and 1970s – but that will be another chapter.

© Jan Whitaker, 2012

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Famous in its day: Miss Hulling’s Cafeteria

In 1978 two of the nation’s top grossing independent restaurants were New York’s Tavern on the Green and Mama Leone’s, according to Restaurant Hospitality magazine. At the first, guest checks averaged $14.50, while at Mama Leone’s the average was $13. A big aspect of both restaurants’ business was alcohol, accounting for 30% of revenues in the case of Warner LeRoy’s Tavern on the Green.

Meanwhile, a sturdy favorite in downtown St. Louis, the venerable Miss Hulling’s, home of chicken livers, creamed spinach, and carrot marshmallow salad — with a negligible drinks business – had a check average of $2. Yet it still managed to rank #58 out of the 500 restaurants in the survey.

Miss Hulling’s was the creation of Florence Hulling, who came to St. Louis around 1907 as a teenager from rural Illinois to work as a private cook. After a few years in domestic service she went to work for the Childs restaurant chain. Eventually she was promoted to manager, a rare status for a woman at that time. Childs closed in 1928 and she and her sister Katherine took over management of the cafeteria in the Missouri Hotel. When it closed in 1930 Florence bought the failed restaurant on the opposite corner and named it the Missouri Cafeteria.  It would stay in business there for the next 62 years [shown just before razing].

In 1934 the Apteds opened a second cafeteria at 8th and Olive, calling it Miss Hulling’s, a name that would eventually apply to the Missouri Cafeteria as well. The Olive Street restaurant occupied a basement site that had previously held the Benish cafeteria [entrance shown] and before that – I think — Lippe’s, a restaurant operated by Detlef van der Lippe.

How well I remember a job I once held chauffeuring an alcoholic boss to Miss Hulling’s, his regular eating place and virtually his true home when he wasn’t bunking in the office of his advertising agency. I suspect he was not the only St. Louisan who relied on Miss Hulling’s for more than just food.

A 1939 Miss Hulling’s menu reveals the kinds of homelike dishes featured there. In addition to those shown, a mimeographed attachment lists a number of dishes not found much in restaurants now. Among the choices are Stuffed Baked Veal Hearts and Braised Ox Joints. If a complete dinner was ordered, for about 50 cents, the diner also got soup or salad, bread and butter, a vegetable such as Creamed Kohlrabi or Fried Egg Plant, a beverage, and a dessert such as Peach Rice Pudding. (See Miss Hulling’s Sour Cream Noodle Bake on my Recipes page.)

In the 1940s and 1950s Miss Hulling’s was just the kind of place that earned high ratings from Duncan Hines and Gourmet’s Guide to Good Eating, the latter reporting, “Everybody in St. Louis swears by Miss Hulling’s. Food is exceptionally delicious, clean, and of high standard.” The cafeterias served their own ice cream and baked goods, used fresh fruit for pies, and prepared food in small batches.

Through succeeding decades the Miss Hulling’s enterprise, headed by the couple’s son Stephen J. Apted, grew large. It acquired Medart’s (turning it into the Cheshire Inn), and opened numerous restaurants in the metro area, among them The Cupboard and the Open Hearth, as well as running food services at two hospitals. Headquarters, including a bakery, were at 11th and Locust above the two-floor cafeteria. At the same location were the more formal dining spot Catfish and Crystal, His Lordship’s Pub, and a bakery and ice cream shop. In 1993 the entire operation at this site was closed down, the same fate having befallen the Olive Street cafeteria some years before.

© Jan Whitaker, 2012

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Between courses: dining with reds

In July of 1928 the Communist Party in the United States opened a public cafeteria on the ground floor of their headquarters in New York City, home also to The Daily Worker. The headquarters, known as the Workers’ Centre, was at 26-28 Union Square East and also contained a cooperative barber shop in which the barbers did not accept tips.

The restaurant was called Proletcos Cooperative Cafeteria. Proletcos was said to be a name created by a garment worker who combined the first two syllables of PROLETarian with the CO of cooperative, then added an S.

It’s not surprising that Communists would select a cafeteria as their preferred format for a restaurant. There is something socialistic about cafeterias, with their self-service and no-tipping customs. They were widely adopted in industrial plants and among working women’s organizations of the 1890s. Two home economists created a chain of cooperative cafeterias in NYC in 1920, called Our Cooperative Cafeterias, which dispersed an annual rebate to customers who were members. Evidently it was unrelated to the Communists’ project. Proletcos, whose prices were about average for a cafeteria, gave a 10% discount to its 600 shareholders. Its workers were guaranteed an 8-hour day and good working conditions.

Proletcos was enlarged in November of 1928 and was able to serve nearly 6,000 meals a day. Artist Hugo Gellert, a lifelong Marxist and co-founder of The New Masses magazine, created a mural for the expanded and refurbished restaurant in which sturdy workers and Communist heros such as Sacco and Vanzetti, John Reed, and Vladimir Lenin, all 10 feet tall, loomed over the dining room (pictured). According to a story in the New Yorker, the cafeteria was quite up to date, with tile floors, brass railings, and modern light fixtures.

The cafeteria had a short life lasting only a couple of years in which it served workers, many of them from the garment district, along with students who liked to hang out, drink coffee, and discuss the issues of the times. It evidently came to an end in 1930 when the CP moved its headquarters from Union Square to East 13th Street.

© Jan Whitaker, 2010

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Taste of a decade: 1920s restaurants

The 1920s is an important decade because it marked the birth of the modern restaurant industry. The advent of national prohibition stripped away liquor profits, shifting emphasis to low-price, high-volume food service. More people ate out than ever before. Restaurant owners formed professional associations to raise industry standards, counter organized labor, and lobby for their interests. Famous pre-war restaurants closed, while cafeterias, luncheonettes, and tea rooms thrived. Female servers began to replace men. Restaurant chains incorporated and were listed on the stock exchange. While critics bemoaned the demise of fine dining, the newborn industry and its patrons celebrated simple, home-style, “American” fare.

Highlights

1920 After a strike of 1,100 cooks and waiters in Chicago, the Congress Hotel hires a crew of waitresses. – Milwaukee restaurateurs report that Sunday has become their biggest day because of families eating out.

1921 A character in Alexander Black’s novel The Seventh Angel observes, “Life is just one damned restaurant after another,” then asks plaintively, “Is there any home-eating any more?” – A restaurant trade magazine reports that half of all restaurant meals in Los Angeles are sold in cafeterias and other self-service eateries. – In New York City, a former “lobster palace,” Murray’s Roman Gardens, advertises sodas and candy in its Ice Cream Salon.

1922 The International Association of Hotel Stewards endorses the elimination of French terms on menus.

1924 A brochure from the B/G Sandwich Shop chain boasts of “Food selected and prepared as in your American home; served by the sort of people you find at home, – high class ambitious young Americans who do not desire to submit to the European custom of depending upon the master’s gratuities.” – Cafeteria chain manager Harry Boos, president of the National Restaurant Association, declares: “Men and women want their goods quick and clean. The restaurant business is a greater industry than ever before in history.” – “Quick and Clean” is also the slogan of the White Cafeteria in Indianapolis.

1925 After the closure of his once-celebrated NYC nightspot restaurant “Jack’s,” owner John Dunstan complains “The town’s full of cafeterias.” – Henri Mouquin’s famed French restaurant is demolished to make room for a Princeton Cafeteria.

1926 The Cordleyware Co. advertises that its champagne buckets for restaurants can be used as carriers for soiled silverware.

1927 The journal Restaurant Management reports that from 25% to 30% of all meals in cities are eaten in restaurants and that close to 60% of restaurant patrons are women. – A restaurant of the Happiness Candy Stores chain opens on the Fifth Avenue site once occupied by Delmonico’s.

1928 In recognition of the growing number of women in the restaurant business, the American Restaurant journal begins a special section called “The Restaurant Woman.” – Chicago’s corned beef sandwich mogul, John P. Harding, known for catering exclusively to men, opens a restaurant especially for women.

1929 A restaurant trade magazine editorial asserts that the industry has finally won respectability. There is, it notes, “tremendous change in popular feeling toward a business once thought precarious – as well as beneath consideration, socially.”

Read about other decades: 1800 to 1810; 1810 to 1820; 1820 to 1830; 1860 to 1870; 1890 to 1900; 1900 to 1910; 1930 to 1940; 1940 to 1950; 1950 to 1960; 1960 to 1970; 1970 to 1980

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

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The family restaurant trade

As far back as the 1700s families in cities obtained some of their meals from public eating places. Usually the food came to them rather than the reverse. If they were wealthy they sent a servant to pick up dinner from the local caterer. “Any Family may be supplied at any time with dishes of victuals hot or cold,” advised a standard newspaper advertisement of the 1790s.

No one realized it of course but the habit of getting the family dinner from a restaurant and eating it at home would become a mainstay of American restaurant business of the future, especially after World War II when carry-out increased.

Families occasionally went out to eat in the 19th century, yet it was unusual enough that when children were spotted in restaurants it tended to set off alarms that still echo today. A magazine in 1853, observing children at New York’s Thompson’s, Taylor’s, and Weller’s – all of which specially catered to women and children – noted, “The little people are taken out, to save trouble, and fed on dainties at the brilliant restaurants, where their appetites are awfully vitiated, and they eat most alarming quantities of ice-creams and oysters.”

Ladies’ restaurants aside, most places were and would remain male turf almost until World War I. Families usually ate in private rooms upstairs, away from barrooms, ruckus, and rude stares. Even in small towns the more ambitious restaurants provided special accommodations for families. In Tombstone, Arizona, the International Restaurant, a miners’ café, advertised dining rooms reserved for them in 1881. Conditions changed little until tea rooms became popular around 1910. They established a kind of “beachhead” for women diners, also multiplying the places where children might eat. Early ones such as the Mother Goose-theme tea room in NYC and the Whistling Oyster in Ogunquit, Maine, which produced its own souvenir children’s book, made a specialty of pleasing young patrons.

After the First World War restaurants became cleaner, more informal, and alcohol-free — and they did more business than ever before. Families were especially attracted to cafeterias, particularly on the West Coast where they thrived. As more families acquired cars, the custom developed of taking a country drive on Sundays, capped off by an early dinner at a roadside inn or tea room. Children’s menus appeared, such as those of California’s Pig ‘N Whistle chain in 1937. The South’s S&W cafeteria chain began to present weekly children’s entertainment nights in 1939. Thanks to rising incomes, more vacations, and a pro-family culture, the restaurant industry of the 1950s saw families as the customer base of the future. “You get a picture of the powerful social and economic trends working in your favor,” an advertising agency spokesman told a restaurant association in 1955.

Working mothers and smaller families in the 1960s further enhanced restaurant growth. By the mid-1960s there were 18,000 restaurants in Southern California, where sales had increased almost 100% since the end of WWII, attributed primarily to family dining. In 1976 the National Restaurant Association identified families’ favorite eating spots as family restaurants, fast-food eateries, theme restaurants, cafeterias, and coffee shops. Chains such as Howard Johnson’s, Bonanza, Ponderosa, Pizza Hut, International House of Pancakes, and Denny’s looked forward to a bright future.

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

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